The drinking age: Address the real problem


Automobile accidents involving teenage drunk drivers are a serious concern in the United States. The US Congress decided to take legislative action. In 1984, it passed a law by which any state that did not set its minimum drinking age at twenty-one by October 1986 would lose five percent of its federal road money in 1986 and ten percent every year thereafter.

This piece of legislation has produced contradictory actions. President Reagan said that every state had its right to control alcohol usage, but then radically changed his viewpoint after the law was passed. The 1984 law, sponsored by New Jersey Democrat James Howard, received some sharp criticism from a Florida Republican, Bill McCollum. Ironically, it was Florida who handled the new law in the worst way: the drinking age there increased from eighteen to twenty-one overnight without any “grandfather clause” to respect those for whom it previously had been legal to drink for nearly three years.

In his starting arguments, Mr. Howard said, “This is not a problem of states’ rights. It is a problem of human lives.” Opponents argued that it was unfair to college students because the problem stemmed from a small minority who used alcohol irresponsibly. “It is a form of discrimination against young people,” said Rep. McCollum. Some senators would still prefer a tougher crackdown on the problem, while others want to stick with President Reagan’s original reasoning and leave the decision up to the states.

Soon there will be a hearing on a South Dakota case in the US Supreme Court to decide if the federal government has the right to require states to adopt a minimum drinking age of twenty-one. The result will have a significant impact. If it is found that the federal government does not have that right, the 1984 law could be repealed and the currently non-complying states would not have to raise their drinking age solely for economic reasons.

South Dakota’s arguments are similar to those heard in the debate in Congress. The Twenty-first Amendment, which repealed Prohibition in 1933, gives the states the authority to control alcohol within their borders. Also, the Tenth Amendment, part of the Bill of Rights, gives the states any powers that aren’t specifically delegated to the federal government or denied to the states. The Reagan Administration defends the 1984 law saying that although the Twenty-first Amendment may have limited Congress’s authority to regulate alcoholic beverages with interstate commerce, its power to attach conditions to its appropriations hasn’t changed.

Ohio is a unique state with non-compliance because the five others—Colorado, Idaho, Montana, South Dakota, and Wyoming—are in the Rocky Mountains or Northern Plains. Those states are known to resist federal involvement in state affairs. It is good to see Ohio resist the pressure and stand up for its rights. Assistant Attorney General of South Dakota, Craig Eishstadt says, “People still want to have some independence and to be able to control their own destiny.” The current drinking age of nineteen for beer and twenty-one for all other alcoholic beverages best reflects the voters’ opinion. Ohio has used its state powers strongly and it is understandable why it is resisting change. The Lieutenant Governor of Idaho, C.L. Otto, said it best: “[The] use of federal blackmail to achieve as noble as goal cannot and should not go unchallenged by any politician who holds states’ rights and the constitution as powerful weapons.” In the anniversary of the Constitution, this issue is a good test of its strength.

One can argue that when each state sets its own rules, different states have different drinking ages. Underage drinkers drive across state lines and sometimes cause drunk-driving accidents. While valid, the problem will be present anyway if one keeps eighteen- to twenty-one year-olds out of controlled drinking establishments, such as bars, restaurants, and public parties. With a higher drinking age, underage young adults will have reason to go off the college campus or stay away from being caught drinking by hiding in automobiles. Are road blocks (“checks”) an answer to this? Absolutely not! This was tried in Michigan shortly after they raised their drinking age and within weeks the state of Michigan received a slew of legal suits challenging constitutionality. Soon enough the “roadcheck” policy was dropped.

An interesting argument against a legal drinking age higher than eighteen comes from a nineteen-year-old from Namret, New York. She notes that thirty-six to forty-year-olds closely following eighteen- to twenty-year-olds as the greatest offenders of drinking-and-driving regulations. She asks why they aren’t included in any similar prohibition, and if legislators would have the audacity to “protect” any other newly discovered risk group, whether it be Hispanic Americans, blacs, or women. The issue of discrimination is clearly apparent. After the Twenty-sixth Amendment was passed in 1971 giving eighteen- to twenty-year-olds the right to vote, many states actually lowered their drinking age to eighteen.

Also, if someone is twenty years old, soon to be twenty-one, and his or her friend is already twenty-one, does one realistically believe the underage adult could not use his or her friend to purchase alcohol? If one of those two persons were stupid enough to drive after becoming intoxicated, would it matter which one, the underaged or legal aged, drove? Another point is that inexperienced drivers are abnormally risky drivers regardless of their age. Those in their first year of legal drinking have high fatality rates, and it doesn’t seem to matter much whether they are eighteen or twenty-one.

A lower age of eighteen would cause sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds to pursue obtaining alcohol, since they would be close to the legal age. However true, one must remember that during the Prohibition everyone who desired alcohol searched for anyone who had it. One of the advantages of the nineteen-year-old age is that most high school students are eighteen during their senior year and turn legal age upon graduation. This is a perfect time to educate these young adults about alcohol, drunk driving, and all alcohol-related laws. Once the student leaves high school and becomes “independent”, the opportunity has passed.

A California study found that more than two-thirds of the state’s eleventh grade students have been drunk and nearly fifty-eight percent of the seventh graders have tried alcohol. Are these statistics surprising? They reflect our society’s ignorance about the abuse of alcohol. An example of this shows outside the eighteen to twenty-one age bracket. Young adults make up a small portion of all on-the-job accidents due to drinking. Older people hold jobs as bus drivers, pilots, air traffic controllers, and train operators, where drinking can cause serious harm to innocent individuals. But Congress has yet to pass a law to restrict the access to alcohol of people who are responsible for many others’ safety.

The twenty-one-year-old drinking age discriminates against a whole category of people, many of whom only drink moderately. It also penalized female drinkers because their DWI convictions are below the national average. “Prohibition” situations occur on college campuses where, in all states that have a minimum drinking age of twenty-one, alcoholic consumption has skyrocketed and hospital admissions and destruction are way up. Drinking has become clandestine, now removed from social and institutional control.

One possible solution is to replace the 1984 drinking age law with higher federal excise taxes on alcoholic beverages. They have been essentially unchanged since 1951. Doubling federal excise taxes would restore their real values to half of the 1951 level. There is considerable evidence that raising prices of alcoholic beverages reduces consumption. Both moderate and heavy drinking contribute to accidents and they would be reduced by higher taxes. Studies also show that higher prices reduce heavy drinking by teenagers and young adults. The higher excise taxes would also provide revenues. Federal excise taxes on alcohol currently raise six billion dollars per year. Since increasing the excise tax would reduce consumption, a doubling of the tax might raise four billion dollars more. This new money could be used for the overall US highway fund.

We should definitely increase the certainty and severity of punishment for drunk-drivers. The US has been slow to propose severe punishment because of the belief that alcoholism is a sickness and cannot be deterred by punishment. Yet there is evidence from many countries that drunk driving is greatly reduced when certainty of punishment is sufficiently high. For example, in Norway and Sweden, heavy drinkers avoid driving for fear of having their licenses revoked for life. Here in the US, in Maine, the conviction rate of drunk driving defendants rose from sixty-seven percent in 1980 to eighty-nine percent in 1984.

Our federal government’s use of blackmail tactics and disrespect of state rights to achieve its well-intentioned goals is wrong. We have to balance the possible effects against the restriction on personal freedom. We could save even more lives with greater stress on driver education and stricter drunk-driving penalties. Legislators should not simply raise the drinking age at the expense of a responsible group that has little voice in legislation. Real solutions require other realistic and positive measures.

Grade: A

[This collects an impressive array of arguments against raising the drinking age, and offers alternative deterrents that seem workable. My only criticism of your composition are the too-long opening paragraphs, and the overly long-winded pace of the first couple of pages. In other words, you could streamline this and make your points more effectively, especially if you’d like it to have legislative effects (beyond fulfillment of a class assignment, I mean.)]

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